Saturday, December 20, 2008

Let my verses go!

Jeffrey Tucker at the NLM:
From the instant that the USCCB announced that the Revised Grail Psalter would become the new standard for Psalms in the ordinary form of the Mass, musicians in the UK privately issued warnings along the lines of “welcome to our Hell.”

The problem is not the translations of the Psalms, which are said to be an improvement over what is in use today in the U.S. The problem has to do with the law, copyright, permissions, expenses, enforcement—and the problems are so pervasive in the UK that one of the least spoken about aspects of liturgical life in the UK is the proliferation of samizdat Psalms.

What are samizdat Psalms? These are Psalm settings written by composers attached to parishes and cathedrals, by composers and directors who are required to use the Grail text but cannot bear to sing the musical settings published by the mainstream publishers. They write their own, but understandably fail to jump through the copyright hoops and pay the exorbitant fees associated with the texts themselves. So they are copied, handed out, kept under wraps, delivered from parish to parish in brown envelopes, and spoken about in hushed tones. It’s like a sector of an underground Church.

The same situation could happen in the U.S. when the Revised Grail becomes official here too. The Psalm that are currently made available online will be forced down. The settings made available by independent composers will have to go underground. The job of setting the Psalms to music will fall to the “Big Three” music publishers who provide the mainstream fare today. Incredibly, one of those publishers, a for-profit company, has actually been named as the literary agent to decide the terms and conditions under which people can publish the Psalms. (more)


Matt said...

Is the problem that money is being charged for sacred music? Or is it that the bishops are somehow requiring parishes to use music that they don't want to use (or don't want to pay for)?

Our church pays a fee to a national clearinghouse that licenses sacred music (mostly Protestant, perhaps), as does the campus fellowship that Amy and I were both a part of way back when. I was offended when I first learned about it, but when it was explained to me in the context that "a workman (e.g., a composer) is worthy of his wages" (Luke 10:7, I Timothy 5:18), I saw a point there. I'm not sure if this addresses the issue here.

Dan said...

No, it's not a problem with money going to composers for their music - in fact I think that's a great thing. The problem is composers needing to pay a cut of their proceeds to set the text of the psalms and other parts of the mass to music. What happens is that the three main music publishers are the only ones who can afford to publish music settings for mass. The small composers who'd like to make their work available for less money, or even free, are clobbered with threats of copyright lawsuits. And then parishes are forced to pay thousands of dollars to the publishing companies to provide music for mass. The texts of the mass should be free for the whole Church to set to music.

Matt said...

Okay, so it's perfectly legitimate to copyright a translation. There are translations of the Bible that are copyrighted. But in the Bible's case I don't believe the terms of use are very onerous, and if you don't like them you can just use a different translation.

If I'm understanding correctly, the problem here is 1) price-gouging, and 2) a directive from the bishops that you are not allowed to use alternate translations, thus creating a monopolistic environment that lends itself to price-gouging. Am I getting the idea? If so, how can the bishops possibly justify such a thing?

Dan said...

1) Yes. There are many composers who'd like to the see more truly sacred music return to the mass, so much so that they compose pieces for free electronic distruibution. But, the texts are copyrighted such that they're not allowed to distribute them for free. And if they pay, a cut goes to the copyright holder.

2) Maybe. A new, good translation of the psalms has been approved by the US bishops for use at mass, but it's not clear if it will be mandated as the only psalms text allowed. However, the new text of the psalms, a venerable treasury of sung prayer from the centuries, is privately held. If it's not allowed to be freely used (with a common domain license) then the only new psalm settings will be by the big publishers again.

The English translation of the scriptures heard at mass by Catholics has a long and strange history. See here and here for some interesting reading.